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From Tokyo to USA: Kusama’s eternal love of polka dots

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Published : 2017-02-28 18:00
Updated : 2017-02-28 19:30

She has two major exhibitions opening simultaneously in Japan and the United States at the venerable age of 87 -- but Yayoi Kusama is nowhere near her last hurrah.

Living and creating are inseparable for the red-wigged avant-garde Japanese artist, as she explained to reporters in Tokyo on the eve of her show opening at the National Art Center.

Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama waves at a photo session during a press preview of her exhibition titled "My Eternal Soul" at the National Art Center in Tokyo on Feb. 21. (AFP-Yonhap)
“I’m grappling with creating art from morning to night every day,” Kusama said, sitting in a wheelchair wearing a kimono with one of her trademark yellow and black polka dot patterns.

“I want to create with a serious mind as long as my life continues.”

Kusama has authored no less than 520 pieces as part of her ongoing “My Eternal Soul” painting and sculpture series that began in 2009.

And that’s only one of many projects in this latest chapter of her 65-year career.

Kusama’s polka dots have adorned everything from Louis Vuitton handbags to buildings and naked bodies.

Organizers of her show which opened Thursday at Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden -- one day after the Tokyo exhibit -- are expecting such a crush of people that they have resorted to crowd control.

The museum is issuing timed passes. The first two weeks sold out before the show even started, 120 new gallery staff and visitor attendants were hired and the museum is offering food and beverages for the first time.

Naked ‘happenings’

With the rate at which pictures of her installations are jamming up Instagram feeds, it‘s easy to forget that one of Japan’s most successful and beloved living artists once fell into a period of oblivion.

During a 16-year stint in New York, struggling to gain recognition as a female and Asian artist in the city’s white male-dominated art world of the 1960s, she staged “happenings” at the height of the sexual liberation movement where people stripped naked and had their bodies painted with polka dots on Wall Street or Central Park.

She also launched a fashion line, established a Church of Self-Obliteration and styled herself the “High Priestess of Polka Dots” to officiate at a gay wedding.

By the time she returned to Japan in 1973, she was burned out. Kusama voluntarily checked herself into a psychiatric ward where she has lived ever since.

It was not until the 1990s that Kusama was “rediscovered,” her polka dots and spotted pumpkins a perfect find for a highly commercialized art market, which soon made her style instantly recognizable.

Trip into troubled mind

A woman photographs inside the "Aftermatch of Obliteration of Eternity" room during a preview of the Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirros exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum on Feb. 21 in Washionton (AFP-Yonhap)

To enter one of the six “infinity mirror rooms” at the heart of the Kusama show at the Hirshhorn is an unsettling trip inside a troubled mind, replete with polka dots, balloons and LEDs.

The Hirshhorn show makes barely a passing reference to the neuroses Kusama has channeled into art, but curator Mika Yoshitake suggested that was a deliberate effort to not “pathologize her mental illness as the source for everything.”

Instead, it focuses on the artist’s celebrated “infinity mirrors,” which provide exactly the kind of immersive and spellbinding experience that many museums seek today -- resonating with the public without need for heavy contextualization or explanation.

The visitor’s own reflection and those of the objects inside the room is repeated endlessly, hinting at the underlying paradox of experiencing infinity in a closet.

“It’s important to experience the rooms without having to necessarily know who she is,” Yoshitake told AFP.

Her “Phalli’s Field” (1965), reproduced in Washington, is a mirrored room filled with hundreds of white stuffed fabric penises with red dots.

Around the highly prolific period during which she created “Phalli’s Field,” Kusama sewed phallic forms of all sizes in “Accumulations” of clothing, furniture, even a rowboat.

She has said it was a way for her to overcome her fear of sex after her mother made a young Kusama spy on her philandering father.

‘Engaging experience’

In pulling the pink curtains to enter the large, dotted pink balloon mirrored dome at the center of “Dots Obsession -- Love Transformed into Dots” (2007), visitors experience something akin to the hallucinations Kusama has said she had as a child, with the surroundings covered in a repeating pattern.

Large balloons hang from the ceiling or block the view in this psychedelic environment where the artist herself appears covered in dots and eating flowers in a video projection while reciting her poem “A Manhattan Suicide Addict.”

Kusama’s more recent “infinity rooms” are darkened spaces that offer a brief respite from the frenzy of daily life -- 30 seconds each at the Hirshhorn.

The flickering lanterns in “Infinity Mirrored Room -- Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity” (2009) are reminiscent of Japan’s “toro nagashi” summer ceremony, when paper lanterns are floated down the river to honor ancestors or in commemoration of victims of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The show closes with “The Obliteration Room,” which Yoshitake called a “modern day version” of Kusama’s 1960s happenings. Visitors are invited to place polka dot stickers all over the white decor.

“It is a very positive, engaging experience, but it comes from something that is much darker, political, from the 60s,” Yoshitake said.

It’s also far more sanitized. (AFP)